TOPICS > Politics

Future of Kennedy’s Senate Seat in the Hands of Mass. Legislature

BY Quinn Bowman  August 31, 2009 at 1:59 PM EDT

Sen. Kennedy's hearse departs from the U.S. Capitol, courtesy Getty Images

Current law provides for a special election to fill an open seat five months after a vacancy, a provision enacted by Democrats in 2004 during the presidential election, when Sen. John Kerry was running for president. The law would have prevented then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, from appointing a successor to the seat.

Just days before his death, Kennedy sent a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo, asking them to consider changing the law so that Patrick would be able to nominate a temporary replacement for Kennedy, who died last week following a battle with brain cancer.

Patrick is expected to pick a date for the special election Monday afternoon, according to multiple sources.

In the letter, Kennedy wrote that the state needs two U.S. senators during the five-month interim. As President Barack Obama pushes for major health insurance reform, an issue Kennedy called “the cause of his life,” the viability of the legislation could depend on one or two Senate votes.

But the future of the congressional health reform effort is at least partially in the hands of the Massachusetts Legislature, which is also dominated by Democrats. Stephen Crosby, dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said the Legislature is almost certain to grant Kennedy’s request to allow Patrick to appoint a temporary successor.

“The chances of that happening are 90 percent-plus,” Crosby told the NewsHour. “The idea is to get a second Senator into the (health care) debate immediately.”

A bill introduced to the state Legislature in January, House bill 656, would allow Patrick to name a successor.

State Rep. Michael Moran, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Election Laws, said a hearing for the House bill will be held on Sept. 9.

State Rep. Robert Koczera, who introduced the bill, said that while it is important for the people to decide who their next Senator will be it, they should not wait for five months to have two of them.

“The beauty of this bill is that it stands test of time no matter who is governor,” Koczera said.

Koczera said his bill would prevent the appointed senator from running for the permanent seat, as Kennedy requested, by requiring that the appointment be made after the filing deadline to enter the Democratic primary for the seat.

David Falcone, a spokesperson for Senate President Murray, said that the senator does not have a position on changing the secession law, but supports the legislative process for the current House bill.

Speaker DeLeo said last week that hearings on a bill could start in the next month or so.

“There will be a hearing on the subject at which time folks will have the opportunity to speak in favor or in opposition. I am still in the process now of giving those folks who wish to express their opinion to me the opportunity to do so,” DeLeo said.

Crosby said the position of the top three state leaders will determine the law change. Patrick has said he would sign a bill that honored Kennedy’s request.

“The real issue is: What do the (state House) speaker and Senate president and governor think? They are moving their way toward a consensus that this is a good idea,” Crosby said. “The speaker and governor are in favor, Senate president is getting there.”

While Democrats dominate the Massachusetts Legislature, some are leery about appearing to change the law for partisan political purposes.

“Some Democrats are nervous that they are changing rules to fit circumstances,” Crosby said. “When the Democrats changed the law when Romney was governor … that was pure, unadulterated politics, there was no debate there at all.”